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Asking ‘How are you?’ is pointless, Harvard researchers say

Imagine this scenario: you meet someone new for the first time at a work-related networking event. You start a conversation, and the person you’ve met starts to tell you a story.  Since you are interested, you ask follow-up questions. After the conversation is over, you later notice that the person didn’t ask you anything that would give you a chance to introduce yourself. Who left a stronger impression?

Conversing with others is a common human experience that can be initiated in many ways, whether it be through making a statement, telling a story, cracking a joke, offering an apology, or giving someone a compliment — or simply nodding, a gesture that encourages the other person to engage more on a positive note. 

Sometimes, however, we all struggle with building up a proper conversation, asking few questions, if any, or posing rather standard questions such as “How are you?” or “What do you do?” 

Harvard researchers conducted a set of studies, published in 2017 under the title “It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-asking Increases Liking,” in Harvard’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“When people are instructed to ask more questions, they are perceived as higher in responsiveness, an interpersonal construct that captures listening, understanding, validation and care,” the study stated.

Researchers revealed that the person who asks follow-up questions may be seen as considerably more sympathetic. 

Focussing too much on sharing your own experiences, opinions and anecdotes are the signs of self-promotion, which often leaves a sour taste in interpersonal communications, especially when people are meeting for the first time, according to the study. 

“In contrast, high question-askers—those that probe for information from others—are perceived as more responsive and are better liked.”

While many of us generally don’t grasp the benefits of asking questions and don’t ask enough while conversing, “people would do well to learn that it doesn’t hurt to ask.” 

Here are some tips to assist you in moving beyond the questions “How are you?” and “What do you do?” in order to establish meaningful conversations.

1. Avoid cliche topics

It’s never a good idea to start a conversation by talking about the weather, the traffic or sports. Instead, pick subjects that are both significant and personal to you.

2. Initiate conversation

By starting the conversation and allowing the other person to learn more about you, sharing personal information may also encourage them to ask you a few questions. Most people do desire to learn more about others, particularly if they share a workplace.

When one person shares something private, the other will feel obligated to do the same in order to preserve a sense of equality and balance. Self-disclosure is a significant component that makes individuals feel close to each other. When you disclose something to someone else, it inspires them to open up to you too, and this mutual self-disclosure is what leads to a sense of closeness.

The goal here is being sincere and not just making anything up. Otherwise, you run the danger of being unable to respond to follow-up inquiries regarding a subject with which you are unfamiliar or just have limited knowledge.

3. Facial expressions and eye contact are important

What you’re saying matters just as much as how you say it. When you speak, turn your head to face the other person rather than the wall behind them. Smiling will make your voice sound warmer while you’re on the phone with someone. It will make it simpler for people to relate to you.

4. Listen to the answers

The first step is just to inquire. Discussions surrounding how to have successful conversations frequently bring up how important it is to actually listen to the other person. 

Stephen Covey outlines the importance of listening to answers in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and says when we listen to people with the intention to reply, we are not fully focussed on the conversation.  “To correct this instinct, as well as asking good questions, you need to make a concerted effort to really listen to the response,” Covey writes. 

5. Open your eyes before you open your mouth

Find something in your surroundings to focus on, such as artwork on a wall, a quirky item or family photo on a desk, a race car helmet, a collection of random coins from different nations, and so forth. There will inevitably be a topic that will stimulate small talk and assist in helping you direct the conversation toward interesting follow-up inquiries.

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